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'People' vs. bigness -- the N.Y.-Hollywood split

Is there a New York school of moviemaking? Lots of evidence points in that direction. Hollywood is famous these days for Bigness in all things -- extravagant subjects, lavish effects, and budgets that can soar to $30 million and more for a slapstick comedy or epic western.

By contrast, New York movies tend to be smaller and more human, about real people with real emotions in real situations. Budgets are modest because it's cheaper to film a smile or a tear than to launch a space invasion. The performances are the focus of the picture, with the miniature department and the stunt crew kept in the back seat, if they're along for the ride at all.

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There's no hard and fast line, of course. But "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Blues Brothers" are obviously Hollywood films. From the East we get people pictures like "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Manhattan," "Willie & Phil," and "Gloria." Movies about the folks next door -- or down the street or across the tracks, but definitely not from outer space or the blue lagoon.

I don't expect this trend to reverse in the near future. In fact, the lines may be hardening. Out West, Hollywood is about to launch "Heaven's Gate," hoping to recoup a whopping $35 million in production costs. Meanwhile, tomorrow is the debut date for "Stardust Memories," by Woody Allen, a people-picture specialist who thrives on modest budgets and who swore off Hollywood forever after filming part of "Annie Hall" there.

Theories exist to be disproved, though -- especially theories about movies -- and this one received a setback just last week. Breathes there a man with more West Coast credentials than Robert Redford? He's a movie star of the old school , clear of brow and square of shoulder, and he's up to his handsome neck in corporate, money-mad, studio-dominated Hollywood. Yet Redford has not been content with being "just" a star, and now he's made his first film as a director -- giving us the most honest, most forceful people picture of the year.

It's based on a novel by Judith Guest, and even the title -- "Ordinary People" -- let's us know where it stands from the beginning. On screen, the characters aren't quite as ordinary as they are on the printed page: certain events just glanced at by Miss Guest become unavoidably dramatic when visualized , however briefly, on film. Still, the whole picture leans deliberately away from the common practice of imposing drama on appropriately contrived characters.

Rather, Redford digs for the secret emotions that hide beneath the surface of commonplace lives. What he finds is often sad, and sometimes tragic: This is no rosy tale, with its occasionally morbid flashbacks, and some of its language is abrasive enough to earn an R rating. But it never exploits its characters or demands their way of living. For all the hidden misery it uncovers, it remains compassionate and humane from first scene to last.

The plot centers on the Jarrott family, nice folks who live in a posh Midwestern suburb. Their oldest son was killed in a boating accident not long ago, and his brother Conrad has been emotionally disturbed ever since. His troubles stem partly from the loss he has sustained, and partly from the common problems of growing up. Judd Hirsch's performance as a psychlogist -- although not one of the leading roles -- is humorous and unclinical.

At first the film involves us with Conrad and his struggle to regain a normal life at home and at school. As we get to know him and his family better, however, the focus of the movie begins to shift. Conrad has better days, and we're free to worry less about him, taking a closer look at his parents instead. We discover the intense emotional life of his father -- a man who feels things deeply, but feels compelled to gloss over his emotions with a veneer of middle-class "I'm OK, you're OK" correctness. And we probe the fascinating depths of Conrad's mother, who has kept the messy feelings of life at a distance for so long she's forgotten how to experience much of anything.

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Ordinary people indeed. Yet no more ordinary than any of us, in our mysterious human diversity. In Miss guest's novel, you might almost say the main character is Conrad's mother, simply because she's the least fathomable -- shaping everyone's lives by her own refusal to function on an emotional level, as well as a social and intellectual one. This feeling is not as strong in the film, largely because the other characters come so strongly, sometimes heartbreakingly, to life. Not only Conrad and his father, but the girlfriend and the high-school buddies, right down to the apelike swimming coach.

Under Redford's direction, even the smallest scenes practically leap off the screen. When the father chats with his business partner about children growing up, for example, a brief interlude in the story turns into a deeply moving reflection on the sad underside of parenthood. And there are high-school scenes so realistic that they wipe "My Bodyguard," good as it is, right off the screen.

Like Woody Allen's "Interiors," this is a moody drama, full of bleak landscapes and disquieting details that indicate the influence of Ingmar Bergman at his gloomiest. Redford falls into the traps of Bergmania, as Allen did -- the picture rambles on too morosely, and some scenes are pat, even sentimental. The last half hour has a lot of face-pulling and tear-shedding, which seems less discreet than the preceding 90 minutes did.

Still, "Ordinary People" marks a powerful directing debut for Redford, who has wisely left the performances to others: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, and Timothy Hutton, who brings Conrad alive with a skill almost unheard-of in a teen-age actor. The screenplay is by Alvin Sargent, with editing by Jeff Kanew -- rough around the edges at times, but as direct and unassuming as Kanew's own recent movie about family life (less hospitably titled "Natural Enemies"). The score was adapted by Marvin Hamlisch, relying largely on Pachelbel's Canon in D, which had better be retired from the Hollywood hills before it becomes any more overused than it already is. The splendid cinematography is by John Bailey.

So what does the advent of "Ordinary People" mean? Is Hollywood about to leave Bigness behind forever? Not a chance.

Still, there are signs of moderation besides Redford's film. Next month will see the screen debut of "The Elephant Man," based on the true story of a seriously handicapped Englishman who finds meaning and happiness in life through his own inner strength, abetted by the benefactions of those around him. As directed by David Lynch, it has a feeling original visual style, tempered with a quiet concern for deeply human values. And other forthcoming films promise to emphasize humanistic concerns -- "Melvin and Howard," for example, which opens the New York Film Festival tomorrow night.

This is good, because we need sensitive movies -- people pictures -- from wherever we can get them, so we won't have to sit through abominations like the TV version of "The Women's Room," which was false and shrill on almost every level. Let us now praise Robert Redford for reviving humanism in Hollywood. It's a gentle and generous gesture.

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